LOS ANGELES — No. 3 Georgia will bully its way into the College Football Playoff national championship game.
The Bulldogs bring to the Rose Bowl the two things a team needs to keep Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma’s potent offense in check: A relentless running game and one of the best defenses in the country.
In an era of spread offenses and up-tempo attacks, Georgia has played to its old-school strengths this season. The Bulldogs huddle between plays. They play a fullback who does pretty much nothing but block. The same can be said for the tight ends. Everything is built around maybe the best set of tailbacks in the country in seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The two have combined for more than 2,000 yards rushing, and Michel needs only 52 more yards to give Georgia two 1,000-yard rushers for the first time in school history.
“Those two set the tone every game,” said Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, who referred to the Bulldogs’ “bully-bully identity.”
And, oh by the way, freshman D’Andre Swift could end up being better than either of the upperclassmen. He’s averaging 8.2 yards per carry.
Georgia was going to be a run-first team regardless of who was playing quarterback this season. Then sophomore Jacob Eason went down with a knee injury in the opener and second-year coach Kirby Smart turned to true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to lead the team, and the Bulldogs became even more run heavy.
Fromm threw only 230 passes this season, and never more than 28 in any game. He was efficient, completing 63 percent with 21 touchdowns and five interceptions. But Georgia crushed opponents on the ground, running for 263.5 yards per game and 5.8 per carry, and getting much improved play from an offensive line that was spotty last season.
It is almost cliche to say Georgia needs to run the ball, control time of possession and keep Mayfield and an offense that averages 8.44 yards per play on the sideline, but that really is the formula to beat the Sooners — because stopping them doesn’t happen much. Oklahoma punted only 36 times this season, second-fewest in the country.
If you were designing a defense to hem in Mayfield and at least slow down Sooners, you would want fast, athletic linebackers that can keep the senior quarterback from escaping the pocket and making spirit-crushing plays on the move. Georgia’s linebackers, led by All-American Roquan Smith and outside rushers Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, can close ground fast and keep Mayfield from making magic.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete ... he can throw the ball and put the ball in locations that you don’t see many guys can do while on the run, throwing off his back foot and whatnot,” Smith said.
Georgia’s defense ranked sixth in the nation in yards per play at 4.45, but it should be noted that only Auburn with Jarrett Stidham and Missouri with Drew Lock presented the Bulldogs a quarterbacks even remotely comparable to Mayfield. The Bulldogs probably can’t rely on their defense to shut down Oklahoma, but that running game will rip off big chunks against the 49th-ranked run defense in the country, limit possessions for Mayfield and send Georgia to the national title in Atlanta, just 70 miles from its campus in Athens.